musician powell discusses his new collaborative EP with wolfgang tillmans
'Spoken by the Other' is a series of electronic experiments by the duo.
Photography Matt Tammaro
Since Wolfgang Tillmans restarted making and releasing music in 2016, the German photographer has worked with everyone from Frank Ocean to Roman Flugel, creating everything from slinking dance tunes to quietly poetic electronic music and nostalgic synth pop. Across the course of his career, London-based musician Powell has proven to be the creator of the some of the most thrilling, varied, wild, and excitingly genre-hopping electronic music.
Despite Wolfgang's recent pivot to musician, music more generally has, of course, always been a part of his work, subject matter, and inspiration for his photographs. For his Tate Modern retrospective last year, he brought his Playback Room project to the gallery, spotlighting the work of 80s synth-soul outfit, Colourbox, and hosted a series of late night events in the gallery's Tanks performance spaces. At the exhibition he met London-based musician Powell, and the two quickly formed a friendship. With “no big plans” to work together, they started experimenting on music.
Wolfgang made a video for Powell’s track "Freezer," they played a few shows together, and now they’ve released a collaborative record, titled Spoken by the Other. Created mostly live in the studio, the record finds the two conducting sonic experiments into voice and sound that stretch from the beautiful and poetic to the tense, terse, and abstract. It sounds thrillingly like nothing either have produced before.
The first track from the record -- a sensual piece of shimmering synthesizer called " Feel the Night" -- dropped a few weeks back, and with the full EP coming later this month on XL, we gave Powell a call to find out more…
So when did you start working together musically?
The whole process has been a long one actually and it never started out properly, it just grew out of us messing around independently, occasionally throwing each other stuff or meeting up in a studio. Over time we realized we'd made music we wanted to share.
You played a few gigs together too, right? Was that a genesis for this?
Not really actually. We did a gig together at Atonal Festival last year -- they asked us to perform together, but we didn't know really what performing together meant at that stage. We weren't really ready for it, we weren’t really sure about what we were doing. Personally, I found that gig quite traumatic, but I think you need to go through a difficult situation to push you into something more interesting.
Are there plans for more live shows?
I think neither of us want, or need, the stress of putting together a touring live performance to be honest. We've both got plenty of things to work on and, really, I'd rather be in the studio. I never found a way to be comfortable performing my own music. I find it can be quite damaging -- my music is so bound up within my own identity. If it’s a bad gig I find myself asking myself too many questions about what I'm doing. It's a double edged sword -- when it's good it's beautiful, when it's bad I can't brush it off.
I mean, failure is the easiest way to learn. Or it can lead you down more constructive, creative, avenues.
I find that to be the case in music and in life generally, actually.
I like the way the record doesn't sound like anything either of you have done before.
It was about finding something new for both of us. There's something very particular about Wolfgang's voice, there's an innocence and a tenderness to it, and a purity and simplicity to his messages. These aren’t things I usually associate with my music -- it forced me to find a musical language to reflect that. So I was working outside my comfort zone, which makes me nervous, but that feeling can be the sign of a good collaboration.
You want someone to challenge and push you. It's exciting as well as unnerving.
Yeah, exactly. You can't keep on doing the same thing. I get bored of repeating myself. I like to feel like I'm not 100% sure about what I'm doing because then you surprise yourself.
I was expecting it -- musically -- to sound more like 'you' to be honest.
I think that's because all of the tracks were made together, live, in the studio. The music was shaped by both of us. It came from a lot of experimentation, from finding different ways for the music and voice to relate each other and trigger each other and open up new things.
The voice really becomes abstracted at some points and melds into the music completely.
What did you think of the record, generally?
I love how dominant the record feels. It has this abrasive and abstract element to it that's really exciting. I liked how that was contrasted with the simplicity of Wolfgang's voice and some real elements of beauty and tenderness.
Abrasive isn't a word I've heard before about this actually?
I get that though.
I think maybe it's because it's not quite as "groovy" as some of your other work -- it seemed less interested in exploring that.
Yeah, although we did actually make quite a lot of groovy stuff but it never felt as good, or like it fitted. At the last minute we took off a more straightforward dance track because it didn't feel like it was coming from the same place.
Does abrasive strike you as the wrong word, then?
To me it sounds tender and gentle. It was always about delicacy, transparency, openness. A few people have said it sounds quite anxious.
Yeah I can see that. It’s not like the record is just one thing. "Feel the Night" is very tender and open, "Rebuilding the Future" feels very Wolfgang in its optimism and almost naivety.
Naivety is a good word I think. The track " Doucement" is just Wolfgang repeating "I love you" over and over again. It's a beautiful, simple, innocent message, and we were trying to find a way to reflect that in the music. Naivety, tenderness, openness — those are words that I like.
Can we talk about "Feel the Night," which is the most straightforward of the tracks on the record?
It was actually the first track we made that we felt good about -- the first we made that kind of surpassed our expectations.
The synth line is really beautiful. It's got an incredible shimmer to it.
The chord seems to carry the voice. It all came together really quickly. A few people we sent it to really liked it, and that track gave us the strength to keep on exploring music together.
I liked how I couldn't really pick apart the references in the record. It sounds really interesting because of that. It felt very much like it existed for itself, within itself.
It's not immediately obvious to me either, actually, but all music we create is a mesh of references, just because that's what's in your head. I mean, in the last year I've only really listened to electro-acoustic music, I've not listened to a dance record in a while, even if I still love that kind of music. Personally, I'm just not interested in the culture of dance music at the moment. Not that there aren't exciting things happening, but I found spending too much time in clubs affected the way I was making music. I was starting to judge everything by the way it would work on a dancefloor. I think that's had an impact on this collaboration certainly.
Do you think this collaboration will have an impact on what your own music will sound like in the future?
I think it's definitely pushed me to explore other things, but I don't think that means it will end up sounding anything like this. I don't really think I can describe what I’m working on it properly yet -- but if you think this is abstract then what I'm trying to do next will make absolutely no sense.
How do you think the public will react to this record?
I got married last and one of the things my wife has taught me is not to expect anything, and not to worry about those things beyond your control. There's a million things out there competing for your shortening attention span. I think it's enough to commit your love and energy to making something, put it out, let it exist. That's enough for me.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.